W. Joseph Campbell

Catching up: Will on Capa

In Furnish the war, Media myths, Photographs on November 22, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I caught up today on several back issues of the Washington Post, including last Sunday’s edition, which carried an insightful column by George Will.

Will himself was catching up on intriguing research that challenges the authenticity of Robert Capa’s famous photograph of the moment a bullet strikes and kills a loyalist militiaman in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa's iconic 'instant of death' photo (Robert Capa/Copyright 2001 by Cornell Capa)

Will notes that a Spanish historian “has established that the photo could not have been taken when and where it reportedly was — Sept. 5, 1936, near Cerro Muriano.

“The photo was taken about 35 miles from there. The precise place has been determined by identifying the mountain range in the photo’s background,” Will writes, adding that the historian “says that there was no fighting near there at that time, and concludes that Capa staged the photo.”

The historian is Francisco Moreno and his research into Capa’s iconic image received a fair amount of attention over the summer. According to the Associated Press, Moreno determined that the shape of hills in Capa’s photo matched a hillside just east of the town of Espejo.

This is not necessarily a media-driven myth — stories about and by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close examination, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated; they often promote a misleading interpretation of the power and influence of the news media. Few media-driven myths rest on outright fraud, which may have been the case here.

Still, the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s photograph has gained over decades. It is considered among the most dramatic wartime photos ever made.

As Will correctly notes, its “greatness evaporates if its veracity is fictitious.”

Capa was a skilled war photographer who was killed in Vietnam in 1954. He supposedly maintained:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Now that’s a great quote: pithy, telling, instructive. Like other memorable quotes in journalism (such as “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“)  it  seems almost too good, too neat and tidy, to be true.

I’ve done a bit of research into the derivation of Capa’s quote. And I have never been able to determine when and where he uttered that line.


  1. […] I wrote in a Media Myth Alert posting November 22, “the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s […]

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